Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

Big news this week from the land of indie comics.  Boom! Studios acquired Archaia to become a indie superpower.  I am excited about the prospects of this development as I truly enjoy both publishers.  Read more about it here.  In San Diego Comic Con news X-Files announced a 25th anniversary panel, the Walking Dead has big plans up its sleeve for its tenth year, and more details are released each day!  About three weeks away from my annual trip to the mecca that is SDCC, and despite the complaints that it is no longer about the comics, I want to stay current with the funny books.

Pick of the Week:
Mind MGMT #12 - Matt Kindt concluded the second arc of his magnum opus is stunning fashion. I have high expectations for this book each month and it always exceeds those expectations.  Meru is finally able to unlock her past that has eluded her throughout this series and the reveal is worth the wait of 12 issues.  This issue is setting a clear path for the next chapter, although you can rest assured that Kindt will have plenty of sleeper agents, twists, and turns for us to experience.  I have been going over a comic summer reading list in my mind and rereading this series has just skyrocketed to the top of that list.

The Rest:
Batman/Superman #1 - Greg Pak delivers an interesting first issue into DC's bloated Superman and Batman lineup.  Akin to the old Joseph Loeb Batman/Superman comics, each character retains his classic voice and the tension and lack of trust of one another is palpable.  Jae Lee's art sets it apart with a darker tone and there is some supernatural thrown in for good measure.  I am on the fence with this one.

The Bounce #2 - Issue 2 was good enough to keep me on board for the first arc.  Joe Casey's characters are interesting and flawed and he does a good job blending humor and tension.  We learn that Jasper's (The Bounce's) big brother is assistant D.A. which can only up the level of drama in what seems to be an increasingly deep book.

X-Men #2 - Brian Wood delivers the action with issue 2 of his all female X-Men.  Arkea, a bacterial villain who has the power to control technology, has is in an all out battle with the X-Men, whom her twin brother Sublime was seeking help.  My favorite moment in a book chalk full of explosions was Jubilee laying with a baby and a stuffed Totoro.  I am becoming more and more of a Brian Wood fan the more of his books I read.

The Wake #2 - After issue one of this title from Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy I was not immediately hooked.  I gave issue 2 a try because I believe in this creative team and I was not disappointed.  We learn a little more about this team of scientists and why they were brought together to study this mermaid type beast.  With ties dating back to the dawn of man, it seems the mermaid is a primate that evolved during the last period of climate change.  Whatever this creature is, it has the ability to warp one's mind and has a message to deliver.  A terrifyingly haunting good issue.

Hawkeye #11 - Hawkeye continues to be one of, if not the, most original superhero book out there.  This week we are treated to life in the eyes of pizza dog.  The entire book is through his perspective and it is filled with heart, humor, and some good old fashion bro taking down.  Whether you have been reading this book or not you owe it to yourself to pick up this issue.  Pure gold.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Microreview [book]: Point and Shoot by Duane Swierczynski

Duane Swierczynski, Point and Shoot [Mulholland Books, 2013]

The Meat

Book reviewers (hobbyists, at least) have it made. We read and comment on books we love [books that we would have probably read and commented on anyway!], and then blissfully buy new bookshelves to accommodate our growing collections. We can get highly anticipated debuts even before they hit the store shelves. And did I mention that we get free books? Unfortunately, however, there are some... pitfalls... to be a bit melodramatic. Every now and again, we are sent the last book in a series that we have not read. In these cases, how can we assess the book in relation to the overall series? How can we ensure impartiality, especially given the fact that final volumes are geared toward long-time fans? This is the problem I am encountering with Duane Swierczynski's Point and Shoot. After all, I am being asked to review a book that does not really work as a standalone novel. Does this make me more impartial, or less?

[Warning: (Very) Minor Spoilers Follow]

Point and Shoot is the third and final installment of Swierczynski's [apparently] delightfully fun Charlie Hardie series. Charlie Hardie, the reader learns, has been involved thus far in a number of earth-shattering, world-saving missions, fighting against a Cabal that aims at nothing less than total global domination. The book begins with Hardie trapped on a low-orbiting satellite, 500 miles above the Earth. Hardie is paying the ultimate penance: he must spend 12 months as a guard dog in the satellite, or the Cabal that sent him there will kill his wife and son. But things start to go wrong when someone docks on the satellite, and tells Charlie that he is guarding some of the world's most dangerous secrets. Making matters even worse, the person who docks and tries to enter the satellite is none other than... Charlie Hardie!


So the story sets out with Charlie Hardie and The Other Charlie Hardie, both with their own agendas, preparing for an epic battle and a heroic journey that takes them, of all places, back home.

Swierczynski deals with having two Charlie Hardies in an interesting way. He writes Charlie Hardie (original) in third person omniscient, and The Other Charlie Hardie in second person. This is particularly well executed, and leaves the reader with a seamless transition between two of the (seemingly) same yet inherently contradictory viewpoints. At the very least, the reader, whether a newcomer to the series (like your's truly!) or a seasoned veteran, always knows which point of view is being discussed.

Still, I found the whole notion of two Charlie Hardies to be way too contrived. The Other Charlie Hardie was modified to look like Charlie Hardie so that he could board the satellite, which is designed only to recognize Charlie Hardie. But one would think that the Cabal would have installed technologies sophisticated enough to recognize the fact that these two people do not share the same genetic code, physiological attributes, heartbeat, patterns of breathing, et cetera. Why was it even necessary to look like Charlie Hardie in the first place? Whatever the case, this set forth a chain of events that had me, from time to time, smacking my forehead in disbelief. Why, Duane, why? Maybe I'd know if I had read the first two books?

Making matters worse, why in the world was Charlie Hardie sent up in the satellite to begin with? It makes very little sense, even after I disabled my critical faculties. If something the Cabal owns needs protecting, then Charlie Hardie seems like the very last person you would want to act as guard dog. Hardie has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is what makes him a great character for adventure-thrillers. 

I never felt invested in the characters or the storyline. Granted, Hardie (the original), the jaded superhero, is charming in his own gruff, ill-natured way. But none of the other characters were able to draw me in. Nonetheless, I must admit that Swierczynski has a knack for quick, engaging, and easy prose. Point and Shoot is thus a real pageturner. So while I did not find myself drawn into the story, I still enjoyed the ride.

And, just in case you find yourself reading Point and Shoot and wondering whether to quit, the last fifty pages really pick up, taking the story to a new level. The climax is fantastic, and Swierczynski ends on a teaser that hints at possible wonders to come. Perhaps that teaser would have had a more powerful effect on me had I read books one and two...   

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for the interesting use of second person.

Penalties: -1 for The Other Charlie Hardie; -1 for pretty much everything to do with the satellite.

Nerd Co-efficient: 5/10 "Equal parts good and bad."

[Read about our non-inflated scoring system here]

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Richard Matheson, Rest in Peace. (1926-2013)

On Sunday, June 23, we lost a titan when Richard Matheson passed at the age of 87. When we lost Ray Bradbury, I wrote a piece memorializing him, so to not do so for Matheson would be a dereliction of duty, a shirking of my well meaning nerd blogging responsibilities.
Also, Hans Moleman driving an AMC Gremlin.
Like Bradbury's, Matheson's output was prolific, diverse, and influential. His name, however, was not as widely known. When I discovered him in my early 20s, I was shocked to learn that I had already known a great deal of his work, and that it had all come from the same mind. Richard Matheson gave us more pop culture sci-fi hallmarks than arguably anyone else ever has. William Shatner losing his mind in an airplane after seeing a gremlin on the wing in The Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (and the amazing Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror parody "Terror at 5 1/2 Feet"), a panicked father hearing his daughter's disembodied voice and unable to reach her in "Little Girl Lost" (and the amazing Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror parody "Homer3"), and many other non-Simpsons related moments such as zombies.

Yep, zombies.

Here's where things get really interesting to me about Matheson's legacy. In 1954, Matheson published a very, very cool book called I am Legend about a scientist who appears to be the last living man on earth and spends his days killing members of the horde of zombie-vampires that torment him and now roam the city in the wake of a global plague that reduced humanity to insatiable carnivorous automatons. Starting with the 1964 Vincent Price picture The Last Man on Earth, there have been three adaptations of the book, including Charlton Heston in 1971's The Omega Man and 2007's Will Smith picture I Am Legend. I will intone in my best old man voice that none of these are nearly as good as the book, either in their plot, character development, or overall emotional impact. But for Matheson, the most faithful adaptation of his book was an uncredited one -- George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which we can all thank for every modern zombie story since 1968, and which Brad Pitt can thank for giving him the biggest box office opening of his career. World War Z and I am Legend are almost totally compatible, and the story of Matheson's Robert Neville and his heartbreakingly misguided quest could just as easily be a series of journal entries in Max Brooks' epistolary novel.

Zombies have been around since ancient times, but Matheson codified in a single work (that is usually characterized as a vampire novel) almost all of the hallmarks that we now consider to be fundamental to the zombie genre. The plague/epidemic, the mindless hordes that want to eat the living, the isolated hero against an onrushing wave of non-humanity. All that. But he also advanced the haunted house genre, in print and on film, as I discussed in my review of Hell House, helped bring about the supernatural/psychological thriller genre with Burn, Witch, Burn, which I also reviewed for this site, and gave Boris Karloff's career a lovely, and loving third act through a series of films with Roger Corman. He also helped launch Steven Spielberg's directing career, which is nice, since our lives would all be slightly more empty without Indiana Jones in them (not Matheson's character).

I think I probably have more films/TV shows on my shelf written by Richard Matheson than by any other writer. I think I have reviewed more films written by Richard Matheson on this site than I have any other writer. If you have not read him or sought out his films, treat yourself to them.

Richard Matheson, you were Legend.

Microreview [book]: Microreview [book]: The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. LeGuin, Vol. 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands

The Meat 

As I ranted at some length in my review of book one of this two-volume collection of LeGuin's short stories, anthologies are suspect for all sorts of reasons, and when I read this volume, I discovered yet another, one moreover that's a bit of a paradox: volume two is, more or less, consistently excellent in the quality of its stories. How is this paradoxically a problem with anthologies, you ask? Why, because volume one was considerably more uneven, with a few truly brilliant stories dimmed just a bit by those surrounding them (mediocrity by association?), while Outer Space, Inner Lands is (just?) very good from start to finish. In other words, volume two had moments of sheer brilliance which stood in sometimes stark relief to other rather ho-hum stories in the collection, whereas volume two has no ho-humitude...but also, arguably, no such stand-out moments either.

   On the other hand, it would be remiss of me to complain about the fact that volume two was so consistently good. And there are some stories I personally found more appealing than others. For instance, there was "Semley's Necklace," which LeGuin, in her forceful and witty introduction (which while an essay is in some ways really almost a short story in itself, and a good one at that) somewhat reluctantly concedes could be labeled 'science fantasy'. She's quite self-deprecating about it, essentially claiming she only wrote it because at the time she didn't yet know any better, but she was selling herself, and the entrancing Semley, way short with that assessment.
Artist's rendering of the eponymous ultra-valuable necklace
(one school of thought claims it may not be the original, however)
   "Semley's Necklace" shares a theme with several others in the collection, namely speculative explorations of the wrenching sense of temporal displacement, or to put it in more human terms, the loss of all those one loves, that would surely come with NAFAL (no, this isn't a clever amalgamation of Raphael Nadal's name, though it would be pretty cool if that caught on; it stands for "nearly as fast as light") travel. We've all seen Avatar, and we accept too readily—because Cameron, the King of the World, demands it—that it would be a simple matter to jump on a ship, get frozen, and spend the six years or whatever in a heartbeat, and we all think it's awesome because the people on the ship won't have aged hardly at all! LeGuin refocuses our attention on that dreadful gap in perception...suppose you left your parents or lover or cat or whatever back on Earth, and once your journey was complete, you spend a few years on the planet and head right back to Earth because you miss those loved ones you'd left behind. Bam! Dare to imagine all that would have happened in those twelve or fifteen or twenty years, and I think you'll see, as LeGuin certainly has, the wisdom in saying, as you depart, "We are dead, you and I"—for even if both you and your beloved still live at the end of that awful separation, what you were is dead, and you cannot ever hope to recover the shattered synchronization of your lives.

   LeGuin believes that the final two stories in the collection are the finest, but I remain unconvinced of that. They're not bad—none of these stories is less than very good—but "She Unnames Them" is merely cute, and "Sur", in particular, was of only mild interest. How she could choose their blandness over the fiery challenge of, say, "The Matter of Seggri" puzzles me. "Seggri" intrigues with its bold speculations about how a world might develop in which female human(oid)s outnumber males 16 to 1, and its wry lack of judgment, as though forcing all the men and women who read it to wonder with her, "Which world is better?" Ours, with today's growing hope of equality, not to mention deeply meaningful relationships between men and women, overshadowed by the dismally violent record of all human history, or theirs, with the (not necessarily?) terrible fate of the men balanced against their apparently more or less eternally peaceful society?

   Fans of Earthsea will be intoxicated by "The Rule of Names", about a certain critically important if minor—though by no means small-statured—character from the first book, and the socks of William James fans (if anyone cares about him anymore) will be blown clean off by "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". I would count myself among the likely walkers, so to speak, but I freely admit such a utopia would be hard for almost anyone to reject.

   Ultimately, if there is one theme running through nearly all these stories, it is that of loss, its consequences and our painful efforts to recover, rebuild, remake ourselves.  And in a strange way, this theme felt more immediate to me, more 'real', in this volume, rather than in book one, where many of the stories are much more transparently about the 'real' world.  LeGuin herself, in the intro, playfully leaves it up to the reader to determine which book is which in this two-volume series called The Unreal and the TLDR answer is: this **** is Real!

**** = 'book', of course.

The Math

Baseline score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for being "all good", +1 for Selmey's tragic and incomprehensible journey and the shudders of tearful sympathy it induced in me

Penalties: -1 for LeGuin making it crystal clear she and I don't see eye to eye on her work, e.g., claiming that what are probably the two least interesting/challenging stories are her favorites

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 Well and totally worth your time and attention

["8" is the new "great"! Check out an explanation of our utterly uninflated scores here.]

Monday, June 24, 2013

Microreview [film]: The Foreigner

The then-brand-new World Trade Center.
The Meat

The Foreigner is a movie so obscure it doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. Not even a stub. Shot in New York in 1978 by a handful of people with seemingly a nickle and length of rope between them, there's really not much to recommend the film either narratively or technically. There's not really a story, so much as a vague idea being played out very slowly across its running time, the sound is so bad that long stretches of dialogue are totally incomprehensible, and no one in it, no matter how much responsibility they seem to have in the world of the story, looks any more than about 24 years old.

But The Foreigner is one of those odd gems that makes a fascination with cult cinema so rewarding. If you can soldier past the (very significant) problems with it, the movie offers its own set of rewards that are pretty much distinct from the experience you get watching a normal movie where you hope to get caught up in the human struggle of made-up characters. Shot over the course of one week by Amos Poe, who a couple of years earlier made what is considered the first documentary about punk music (The Blank Generation), you could argue that The Foreigner is the first punk feature film. It's rough, intentionally ugly in parts, transgressive, and was clearly done for the sake of doing it. Like punk music.

There's a fine line here, of course, between "rugged DIY experiment" and "who cares?" but the film's immediate impact on the small circle of artists involved in the scene that produced it (called No Wave Cinema at the time) was significant and lasting. I could describe the movie as some kids attempting to do their impersonation of Godard's Alphaville, which is accurate but also makes it sound like something your pretentious high school neighbor did last weekend. So instead, I'll describe this movie about a secret agent who is so secret neither he nor anybody else knows what his mission is as the filmic contemporary and equivalent of Blondie's self-titled 1976 debut album -- more memorable for what it started than for its own content. And Debbie Harry has a small part in The Foreigner, which is neat to see. The movie, its filmmakers, and others all revolved around CBGB's, and so the result is sort of an insider-outsider film, a film about outsiders made by a trusted member within that group.

The Math

Objective Quality: 2/10

Bounses: +1 for providing a DIY model and sense of what was possible to people like Jim Jarmusch, who was also in the scene at the time but not yet making films; +1 for achieving an evocative atmosphere unhindered by the movie's own technical shortcomings; +1 for the present-at-the-creation view of the late-70s NYC punk scene

Penalties: None, it would just feel like piling on.

Cult Film Coefficient: 5/10
This is how we make DIY title-cards.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Summer Reading List: The G

This is the last of our summer reading series. Like the others, I fully intend to read all of these. Like the others, I may not. However, I have each in my possession (thanks, publisher friends) and will do my best to read as many as possible. Without further ado, here's my list in the order I intend to read them.

1. Joyland by Stephen King [Hard Case Crime]

I'm about 120 pages into Stephen King's carnies-n-ghosts mystery and, so far, there aren't many ghosts but there sure are a lot of carnies! That sort of works, as I've always found non-corporate amusement parks fascinating--particularly the sketchy ones. Only this one isn't that sketchy. Actually, I'm not really sure why I can't put this book down, to be honest. But I can't.

2. Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear (Tor/Forge]

Can Bear keep pace with 2011's excellent Range of Ghosts? After all, that's the only novel we've ever given a 10/10 to. I'm interested to see where the story goes, and especially interested to see how Bear develops the Uthman Caliphate. My expectations are understandably high for this one.

3. The Thousand Names by Django Wexler [Roc]

"Flintlock fantasy" is a thing these days, and though it's actually been around for a while, the style is finally getting some buzz. I've yet to encounter any in the long-form that really hits the spot for me, but early reviews suggest Wexler's latest might be the one.

4. Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson [Tor/Forge]

Truth be told, I actually read Gardens of the Moon a few years ago on the Jemmy's recommendation. Well, half of it, at least. Lots of people tell me that it's worth the slog to reach the greatness of the sequels (Jemmy's contention all along), so I've decided to give it another go. I hear the series is very weird. Weird good.

5. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes [Mulholland]

This one arrived unsolicited from the publisher, and I guess they know me better than I know myself, because I didn't really care about reading it until I saw the cool cover and read the jacket (super girl vs. time-traveling serial killer). Yes, Beukes' latest sounds awesome. I'm in.

6. Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson [Jo Fletcher Books]

I have a tortured relationship to Viking fiction: I love the idea but, having read nearly all of the sagas, I get fussy about historical inaccuracies, use of modern language, poor representation of Viking society and religion and so on. At the same time, when someone gets it right (like Frans Bengtsson's Röde Orm books), it's magic. Snorri Kristjansson shares a name with the father of Viking literature and may also be Iceland's second-funniest person. That's promising.

6 1/2. Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson [Orbit]

As with carnies, so too cavepeople. And who better to write a cavepeople novel than a guy who's primarily famous for scientifically grounded novels about terraforming? Snark aside, Robinson's gift for meticulously researched fiction should serve him well here. Besides, the premise sounds pretty damned cool. Another book that wasn't on my radar, but I'm glad it is now.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer Reading List: Zhaoyun

Zhaoyun's Dark yet Fantastical Summer Reading List!

As I huddle directly under the air conditioner trying to stave off heat stroke this summer, my thoughts have turned, unsurprisingly, to humanity's rather robust contribution to the warming cycle currently in full swing here on planet Earth, and whether it spells doom for us all, a la The Day After Tomorrow (though honestly, right now a freak cold spell sounds pretty awesome). So you may notice, in my summer reading list below, a certain apocalyptic theme.  However, I'm by no stretch of the imagination a pessimist, which is why the books I read tend to get through that nasty apocalypse business relatively quickly and get on to the "post" part, the joyous rebuilding of civilization...

1) The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

   A while back I wrote a review of Cronin's first book in this trilogy, The Passage, which was phenomenally good (the book, that is, not necessarily the review!), so I've been looking forward to reading the second installment ever since, and methinks summer is the time to do it.  Ah, how nice it will be to return to the world of uber-vampires and Amy and, in the middle of it all, the surviving blood banks (I think you know what I mean).

2) Island in the Sea of Time, by S.M. Stirling
   90% of the people who read this blog, I am quite certain, have a) seen Revolution, and b) are just a bit conflicted about it.  Objectively, we all know that despite an intriguing starting premise and a well-directed pilot, the show is terrible, suffering from ham-handed, repetitive, wildly implausible story-telling (and utterly unstable characters!) so bad it's almost impressive, in a way. And don't even get me started about the younger brother and his moment of fame. I wish I could interview the execs at NBC who green-lit the second season, or possibly dissect their brains to rule out the possibility that they're aliens and perhaps, just perhaps, get to the bottom of their colossal idiocy in renewing such a terrible series after it had already started to (or continued to!) founder big-time.

If you're anything like me, this is how you look after enduring an episode of Revolution...

   That's the objective appraisal of the show: an interesting idea that was totally ruined by people who don't understand how to tell a story—and might be aliens.  But the romantic in me still finds something to like about the basic premise. This got me thinking: where did the premise come from?  It certainly didn't originate with any of the pod people running the show! Shame on you for lending your name to the crapfest, J.J. Abrams!
   Well, I can't be totally sure, but my money's on it being lifted from Stirling's Dies the Fire, which explores how human society might falter and adapt in a world suddenly and inexplicably deprived of electricity (in any form, including batteries, etc.) or effective gunpowder. And Dies the Fire was pretty interesting, and even with the annoying Wiccan utopia thing it was loads better than Revolution, at any rate (did I just damn it with faint praise?), so I decided I'd like to see where Stirling's idea for this sort of world came from, and it turns out he started his exploration of this unique universe in his Nantucket series, which is sort of the reverse—an ancient world where a small group does have access to advanced technology. Move over, Revolution! It's time to revisit ancient Greece...but this time, I'm bringing my AEGIS cruiser!

3) The rest of The Strain trilogy by Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan
   The first book, The Strain, was quite good—its first half was absolutely fantastic, and the second half, while slightly disappointing due to all the clumsy exposition, wasn't too bad either.  It reads an awful lot like a novelization of a screenplay, a story screaming to be made into a chilling action/horror movie (and judging from the title of book three, a pretty dark one at that), which is no surprise considering Guillermo del Toro is one of the co-authors.  While I'm excited to read the rest of the trilogy, I sure hope this series wasn't the real reason del Toro ended his involvement with The Hobbit! I like Jackson as much as the next Tolkien fan(atic), 

but I would've loved to see what del Toro could do with the story, and I can't help but think we wouldn't have gotten such a languid, trying-to-be-LOTR-but-coming-up-short first movie if he'd been in control.

4) The Tyrant's Law, by Daniel Abraham
   I'm just finishing the second book in the series now, and am leaning toward agreeing with Jemmy's review, in that I feel it's significantly better than the already very entertaining first book. Given the glowing review The G gave this book, as well as the fascinating guest post we had by Abraham himself recently, my interest in The Tyrant's Law is well and truly piqued!

5) Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
   Do you ever get just a little sick of endless, monotonous lines of words, words, words, for hundreds of pages on end? Who was it who arbitrarily decreed that children can enjoy more sensorily engaging illustrated works but adults have to snooze their way through dry text? (I'm thinking of you, A.R. Burn!) This brings me to why I've chosen a borderline Young Adult book for my list.  I've been told by a source I trust that it's a) very good, and b) text interwoven with vintage photographs, an idea I find intriguing.
            I guess it's time for confessions, as well: I kind of like YA fiction, and I'm only slightly afraid to admit it! The Hunger Games, for example: the first one was pretty good, the sequel was okay, and the third one was mind-numbingly awful, but I certainly don't regret reading them—they were fun! These sorts of stories are so simple to read they're like Prozac in book form, and I'm hoping to get another dose from good old Miss Peregrine and her weird kids!

Time Permitting:

6) Reached, the conclusion of the Matched trilogy, by Ally Condie.
   See #5 for why adding corny post-apocalyptic romances to my list is okay. And if it's the same old tired trope of love triangle, that doesn't make it any less deliciously entertaining to figure out, at long last, which way Cassia will go: to Ky or Xander. Regarding the character names, I really want to say "You can't make this stuff up" but of course that's pretty much what Condie did...
   Anyway, the second book, Crossed, was a let-down after Matched, the excellent first book, so I'm hoping Condie can bring back the magic of Matched in book three!

7) Extinction Point, by Paul Antony Jones

   I don't know anything about this book, but honestly, what's not to like, given the title?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

San Diego Comic Con is less than a month away, but the news that has me pumped up is that Locke and Key has been optioned by Universal!  Read all about it here.  So happy for Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez.  If the movies are made properly this has the possibility to be truly stunning.  In other news, Age of Ultron reached its conclusion, the Sixth Gun had two books out, and a new X-Files comic debuted (I unfortunately have not read it).

Pick of the Week:
Sixth Gun: Sons of the Gun #4 - I have been enjoying this spin-off from the Sixth Gun world.  These books shed more light on General Hume, his widow, and the four henchmen that accompany them.  I was fully on board when I heard that this was happening, but it hasn't been until this issue that I felt it truly shined.  This book focused on Silas Hedgepeth who wields the fourth gun and can call up the spirit of those it shoots down.  What made this issue stand out was how good intentioned Silas was and how, despite thinking he was doing a greater good, the gun was corrupting him and turning him into the villain we read about in the regular series.  I felt truly sorry for him and the what the gun was putting him through.  If you enjoy the Sixth Gun, or if you have never read it, this spin-off is accessible to all and a great way to gain entry into this world that Cullen Bunn has so thoughtfully crafted.

The Rest:
Sixth Gun #32 - I really want to spoil the last page of this issue as it had such impact, but I will refrain myself and let you know that this book begins to really bring things back full circle to the first trade.  Becky Montcrief bears witness to the six throughout time and even runs into a familiar face.  Really digging into the lore of the six has really rekindled my interest in rereading this series for the fifth time.  Can't say enough about how good this series is.

Age of Ultron #10 - For a Marvel event that I have enjoyed that is supposed to have major implications for the Marvel Universe, the finale leaves a lot to be desired.  Brian Michael Bendis does a nice job of wrapping everything up, but the level of excitement and consequences that seemed possible fall flat.  I am going to read this as a collection, but feel that it didn't achieve its intended results.  I also would have preferred more Ultron in an event with the title Age of Ultron.

Fables #130 - Bill Willingham delights us this week with a self-contained story that sets up the next arc of Fables.  My relationship with Fables has seen its high points and low points (although never really that low) and I remain hopeful that this next arc will continue the upward trajectory this series has enjoyed lately.  Seeing this cover reminds me that we need a follow-up to the Fables Covers book as this series has some of the most iconic covers in any run.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Microreview [book]: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear, Range of Ghosts [Tor, 2012]

The Meat

I have to start with a mea culpa: I wrote the bulk of this review more than a month ago. I've left it languishing since then, for the simple reason that I've been afraid that I won't do the book justice. Range of Ghosts is a complex and deeply rewarding book, and it moved me in a way fantasy books don't generally move me. It is one of the best fantasy books I've ever read and, really, should have been on last year's Hugo and Nebula shortlists. It wasn't--a fact that baffles the hell out of me.

Range of Ghosts and does not take place in the typical alt-Western world where most epic fantasy takes place. The decision by a Western writer to base a fantasy world on non-Western cultures and/or mythologies, of course, is a high-risk/high-reward strategy. High-risk because you presumably didn't grow up in that culture or with those mythologies, which in turn means there's a greater chance you'll get things wrong. And given that non-Western cultures and mythologies are marginalized in SF/F, those mistakes can be troubling or hurtful in ways getting it wrong about, say, medieval France or England simply would not be. All that said, if you can pull it off and do justice to underrepresented subjects and cultures, you've not only produced something inherently more interesting than yet another Euro-fantasy, but also helped expand the boundaries of what's considered acceptable and normative in our sometimes painfully Eurocentric corner of the nerdosphere. Maybe you even encourage readers to start learning about places, times and peoples they might have known little about (or casually accepted stereotypes for) as well.*

This is one of the strengths of Elizabeth Bear's remarkable "silk road fantasy." For the unaware, Bear has long been a part of the public discussion on issues of representivity and appropriation. She's clearly learned from those experiences, and as a result produced a fantasy set outside the alt-West that gets it about as right as any such book produced by a Westerner has ever gotten it.

While it may not be historical fiction, the peoples and polities found in Range of Ghosts are all firmly rooted in real-world analogues. Though Bear does not agree (as she told me on twitter in polite but not uncertain terms), I'd call the book "historically-grounded fantasy." After all, it's not just that the Qersnyks (Mongols), Uthmans (Abbasid-era Sunni Muslims), Rasans (Tibetans) and others are firmly rooted in real-world analogues, but that they share extensive political and social institutions and cultural concepts with their real world analogues--and are spaced out geographically in roughly the same way they were spaced out in actual human history (albeit anachronistically in some cases). As such, I see Range of Ghosts as having a firmer foundation in stuff that really happened and people who actually lived than a lot of fantasy. What's more, Range of Ghosts consistently pushed me to seek out and consume as much historical knowledge about the cultures and mythologies she draws from as I could find. So as a side-effect of reading this book, I now have a much more nuanced and rich understanding of Mongol history, among other things.

All that said, a majority of the cultural soup contained in the book is made-up, and the world-building is a particular strength. Bear introduces us to a reality in which peoples are watched over by gods whose domains correspond to the extent of their chosen people's political reach. As a result, each region along the Celadon Highway is covered by a different sky, and the book's characters grow disoriented as they leave the comfort of their spiritual domain. The effect is to establish religion as an essential component of the ecology--no less important than topography or climate. The device also works as a literal interpretation of the disorientation felt by religious minorities, presumably much more acute in eras more deeply enchanted than our own. I could go on, but then I'd go on for much longer than I have room for. Suffice to say that, in a genre drawing heavily on an era of totalizing religion but which tends to treat the subject with a trepidation bordering on ambivalence, Bear's portrait of faith as a lived reality stands out as an unusually sensitive, nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of the deeply religious.

Plotting in the first half of the book is a bit elusive, but deliciously so. We start off with protagonist Temur waking in a field of bodies, a strange horse by his side and a deep gash across his throat--which, really, should have killed him. He looks to the sky and, by the arrangement of moons, comes to realize that his cousin, in whose army he rode, is dead. However, his ambitious uncle Qori Buka, who led the opposing army, is still alive. This doesn't portend well for Temur, so he tries to hide in a refugee column. Here he meets Edene--an independent and worldly Qersnyk woman to whom Timor immediately grows attached. Unfortunately, Qori Buka's ally, the wizard al-Sepehr (alt Hassan-i-Sabbah) dispatches ghosts who steal Edene from him. Temur swears he'll go to the ends of the Earth to find her.

By the gates of the city of Qeshqer he meets Samarkar, once Princess of Rasa and now a wizard, and Hrahima, a sentient Tiger in the service of a merchant-prince (of sorts) from Messaline. Hrahima seeks to warn all of al-Sepehr's ambitions to resurrect the long-dead and universally-feared Carrion-King. Qeshqer, though, is a ghost town and, what's more, there's evidence that its people fell prey to the same ghosts who took Edene. From this point on, Range of Ghosts adopts a more traditional quest structure--one that takes our heroes to Rasa, to an ancient and isolated mountain kingdom and across the known world.

Though the book moves more quickly from this point forward, I found the shift to this familiar narrative form a bit disappointing. That's not to say there's anything wrong with it, but rather just that I found the dense, surreal and expressionistic storytelling of the book's first half to be such a breath of fresh air. It reminded me of The Book of the New Sun, which I guess would be the Holy Grail of compliments for any fantasy author with literary aspirations. As the pace picks up, some of that dissipates. In its place, simply an unusually well-written and gripping adventure with more depth and smarts than nearly anything published in the genre. I know: poor us, right?

At the end of the day, though, the fact is that this book just does so many things right. The prose is just wonderful--tight and compact yet poetic at the same time. The characters are well-rounded, relatable and sympathetic, and you feel as if you have a stake in their relationships. The settings are evocative, the cultures internally consistent and the battles thrilling. And, as described above, Bear is not afraid of presenting vastly different social relations from those we see as normal for epic fantasy, nor of exploring the implications of these things in a suitably contextualized manner. As you may know, this is a big thing for me.

I did, however, have one area of concern. Though gender, ethnic and class dynamics are generally treated with due diligence, I found myself growing a bit uncomfortable every time the Uthmans or the Nameless Cult came up. The Nameless are, after all, positioned as the bad guys, and the Uthmans are essentially "othered" by the Qersnyks and Rasans who make up the bulk of the book's characters. So as things stand we appear to have alt-Muslim "baddies" and alt-Muslim "weirdos," and I'm just, well, a bit tired of this trope. That said, I do think it's just a setup; I fully expect that in later volumes, Bear will approach these alt-Muslim cultures with the same sophistication she reserves for the Qersnyks and Rasans in this one. So I guess you can take that as conditional criticism only.

That aside (and word on the street is that the above hunch is correct), this is a remarkable book, one that does nearly everything I want a fantasy book to do. It's a book you should read, if you haven't done so already. In fact, you should do it right now. After all, Range of Ghosts is so good that I've gone ahead and made it the first novel reviewed on this site to ever garner a perfect score.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for the incredibly rich world-building; +1 for depth of characterization.

Penalties: -1 that conditional criticism.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10. Mind-blowing/life-changing.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

*This does not obviate or lessen the need for more published works by non-Westerners. Good Western-written books drawing on non-Western histories, cultures or mythologies can help broaden our collective sense of what subjects are accepted in mainstream SF/F, but they do not broaden the range of voices. If you are interested, as I am, in supporting the expansion of SF/F to include more voices from beyond the West and Anglophonia, you can start by checking out The Apex Book of World SF (vol. 1 and 2), become a regular reader of The Future Fire and spend some quality time at Lavie Tidhar's and Charles Tan's excellent World SF Blog. There's lots more out there, but those are good places to start.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

BLOOD AND BONE Giveaway Winner

Congratulations to Bibliotropic! Your copy of Blood and Bone is on the way to you as we speak.

Thanks to everyone who entered. Stay tuned for more giveaways in the future!

Summer Reading List: Philippe

I suppose that while I was growing up, sci-fi and fantasy were similar to heavy metal. In high school, I self-identified as a punk (though I dressed like a skater, being a skater and all) and in those days one could either listen to punk or metal, never both. I guess it was the same with sci-fi. I preferred horror and hardboiled crime fiction. Some sci fi got through, mainly Philip K. Dick, whose work I was enthralled by thanks to Dustin Long. (Check out his debut novel Icelander. Today.) The G has had an influence on me on me in recent years, recommending that I read Song of Ice and Fire and Ian M. Banks’ oeuvre, as well as The Book of the New Sun, which I never finished. Hence it's on the list.

So this summer, I'm going to give it a shot. I'm going to read nerd lit. Or, I'll plan to. And I'm sure you'll mock me:

5. Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons (alternative reading order)
Why would I put myself through this again? Fortunately, I didn’t get into Martin’s opus until about three years ago. I didn’t have to suffer through years of waiting for the underwhelming Book 5 after being blindsided by the crappiness of Book 4. I didn't go through what my friends went through. But, like them, I truly dislike the last installment. A friend of mine suggested I reread these according to an alternative chapter order floating around the internet. And why not? Probably because the TV series has replaced the novels in terms of importance to me. That is, until Book 6 comes out.

Odds that I will actually begin the books: 100% (I started two weeks ago)

Odds that I will finish: 10% (HBO will eventually get to these books and hopefully do a better job than Martin did)

4. A Few William Gibson Novels
Specifically Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History. I have tried twice in my life to read Nueromancer, found it boring and pretentious, so I’m not going to do that again. After all, it’s the Die Hard of cyberpunk. I believe on one of my attempts I got 40 pages into the book. But, as I recall, it was boring. Years ago I read Pattern Recognition—an airport purchase—and rather enjoyed it. But the main reason I may—and throughout this post, assume a “may”—is because he’s the favorite author of a very good friend of mine who has for years recommend that I read Gibson. Last week he recommended these three novels. Then he gave me his copies. The fact that I left them on his front porch perhaps doesn’t bode well vis-à-vis actually reading them.

Odds that I will begin this: 50% (A good friend pestering you to read something can force you to read something)

Odds that I will finish: 35% (For no other reason than low self-expectations)

3. The Black Company
Sometimes a title alone can pull you in. I really can’t same much more than that, other than it’s supposed to be about militarism, a topic I am quite familiar with in my other life. But I bought this one, with hard earned cash no less. The only thing that may keep me from reading this is the possibility that I'll want to read the entire series. Ain't nobody got time for that. I have a PhD to finish.

Odds that I will begin this: 65% (Mainly because I actually bought this book)

Odds that I will finish (n/a: I bought this after reading a brief synopsis of it. I’ll be able to tell by page 20)

2. John Dies at the End
Not only did I buy this novel, I began reading it already. One hundred pages in and it’s funny, weird, maybe it tries a bit too hard—which may be why I stopped reading it a few weeks ago. That and grading, writing, research, cowboy poetry festivals, etc. I was in Europe when the movie came out, so I missed out on any hype (assuming there was hype) surrounding its release. But a friend, the same from #5, recommended it. And since he reads whichever comics I send his way, reciprocity demands that I read one of the books he recommends.

Odds that I will begin this book: 100% (I started it three weeks ago)

Odds that I will finish it: 3% (I want to, but the fact that I stopped reading it two weeks ago doesn’t bode well)

1. Book of the New Sun
I read books one and two three years ago and, despite it being a slow, Dostoevskyian process, I really enjoyed reading these novels. Gene Wolfe is simply a masterful author, or at least one who requires a level of labor on the part of his reader to evoke obsession and wonder. Then I started the second book. I recall more of the same: Sevarian wandering. And I vaguely recall him wandering some more. And then I left for Europe. Though I read a good number of novels during my year away, the second collection was not among them. Anticipating a post-GoT depression, I begun reading The New Sun series again last week. One hundred and eleven pages in and I am fairly confident that I’ll finish—assuming I can get through the Botanical Garden bit once again.

Odds that I will begin this book: 100% (Started)

Odds that I will finish: 100% (Then again, who am I kidding)

Monday, June 17, 2013

AiIP Review: Planks, by S.C. Harrison

Way back when, in my very first column in this space, I interviewed S.C. Harrison, and she has a new release out- A short horror work called Planks. I am going to take this opportunity to review it for this months Adventures in Indie Publishing, because it stands out not only as a quality piece by any standard, but some of the freedoms that come with indie publishing. I'll use the standard micro-review format and throw in a bonus section at the end.

The Meat:

 Planks is, essentially, a series of five short stories, which makes is a pretty brief read. Packed into that, however, is a tremendous amount of depth. It feels like it is much, much longer than it is.

If it was simply the short stories that make up this collection, it would be good. Each story is haunting by itself- the first two feel a bit standard horror-ish, with people meeting grizzly deaths with some drug usage thrown in for good measure. They are haunting, in the way short stories can be, leaving you wondering what lurks on the periphery.

But then she explains it. It's hard to talk about it without giving too much away because, as mentioned, it's short, but the final three stories explain the who-what-when-how-why of it, and damn. Not that it's the greatest reveal in the history of horror literature, but she puts on a clinic in world building.

Not only is Planks believable, it almost feels likely. Those first couple stories allow you to feel The Planks, the dirt and crime and something creepy, but then the final three draw back and allow you to look at it as a whole. For as short as this is, the world constructed and how immersed you are in it is a fantastic achievement.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 7/10- Fantastic, smooth read overall, with a depth to the creepiness that is often lacking in today's shock-and-awe style horror.

Penalties: -1 for being so short.

Bonuses: +1 for being so short. INORITE? I don't know what could have been done to make it longer- any more seems like it would bog it down. So the brevity is also a strong point- nothing is wasted, there is no fat. It's over before you know it, and you're blinking wondering if there should be more.

+1 For exceptional world building. I don't ever want to go to Planks, but I read this three times and felt like I was there every time.

Overall: 8/10: Well worth your time and attention.

Bonus bonus: it's $0.99 on Kindle, Kobo and Nook. You can also enter the GoodReads giveaway for a signed paperback.

Indie Publishing Observation: I noted the brevity of it as both a strong and weak point. While, with the world she wove and the characters in it, I would have loved to read much more of it, it fits the story it is. With traditional publishing, at best, this ends up in an anthology or short fiction journal. This is fine and good, I read them all the time, but not many people do. The flexibility granted by releasing it in this format means it will be around a lot longer, and give many more people the chance to read it.
On A Semi-Related Note: A very interesting observation from a couple indie authors that Amazon might be less than honest in reporting sales numbers of indie authors. This is, obviously, very hard to verify if you sell more copies than you can swear to, but interesting nonetheless- and hardly surprising, either due to blatant dishonesty or errors in tabulation. I don't take the Amazon-is-evil tact that a lot of people do (though I certainly don't blame them, or even disagree), but I think more people should look to Kobo, which is emerging as a major player in the ebook market, and is much friendlier than Amazon is, to authors, readers as well as indie bookstores (no matter what Hugh Howey says). The software is free on any device and the catalog is just as extensive as Amazons.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine

Live Arcade Thievery

Monaco is a throwback to the tabletop games of old. It takes a top-down view in the same vein as the classics of the eighties, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Centipede. I can still remember waiting for a table at Western Sizzler as a child and playing a tabletop Ms. Pac-Man, but I digress. This Xbox Live Arcade beauty has won several independent game of the year awards. It has a 79 on Metacritic, which is pretty good considering its graphics would fit right in with those other tabletop games. Let's just say they don't rely on stunning CG to cover the lack of a quality game.

Monaco proves you don't need mind-blowing graphics to create an enjoyable game. It has a fun story, a good sense of humor, a nice melange of character options, and challenging gameplay. Put them all together and you get a unique game that takes you back fondly to your earliest years in video gaming. You can keep the "you're old" jokes to a minimum. I realize I'm dating myself here. The comparison to Ms. Pac-Man or, more accurately, Gauntlet, are apt in both visual depiction and enjoyment.

The gist is that you are a part of an Ocean's Eleven-like team of thieves, burglars, and general n'er-do-wells. Holding down L2 or left trigger put you into "sneak" mode. This made you fairly hard to detect, but if you walked in front of an officer, it didn't matter at all. You start the game with four of the eight character types. The other four must be liberated from captivity before they can be used. Along the line you rob banks, steal yachts, crack safes, kill cops, and cause country-wide mayhem. The story was cute, but not where developers placed their focus. The focus was clearly on unique and addictive gameplay.

All of the speaking in the game is in French, which is strange considering the developers are based out of San Francisco. However, I suppose the events of the game do take place in Monaco, so it makes sense on those terms. You can play the game in single player mode, but it really shines when four players are trying to be stealthy together. The chaos is unlike anything I've seen in Halo or Call of Duty. Instead of it being four times easier, as is usually the case when you fill out a multiplayer team, it was four times more challenging. Keeping one character hidden is hard enough. Keeping four out of all the guards' line of sight was nearly impossible. I was definitely the weak link in the chain, too. In my defense, my friends had been playing for two weeks and it was my first time. Now that you've heard my excuse, you'll understand I know that of which I speak when I say that you spend a LOT of time in multiplayer reviving teammates. 

The line-of-sight display used in Monaco means you can only see what was visible by your flashlight or ambient light from the environment. Even though certain rooms may be on the screen, unless you are physically in them you can't see what's going on. It would be nice to know whether there are cops inside or not. This effective visual decision made picking locks and entering new areas nerve racking, but in a good way. It was one of the little stealth additions that make Monaco a success. When you aren't relying on stunning graphics as so many of today's games do, you absolutely must have extra polish on your gameplay to get any attention at all from the gaming public. 

cast of characters

There are eight playable character types in Monaco. Each one brings a certain set of skills to the action. I found the Cleaner to be the most effective in the early going. Later on, the unlockable Mole became a personal favorite. Here is a list of the characters and their powers:

  • The Hacker can disable computers and cameras faster than other characters. He can also create computer viruses from outlets. 
  • The Cleaner can knock out unsuspecting guards. If they don't see you coming, you can put them to sleep for a short period of time. The Cleaner also uses med-packs faster than other characters. 
  • The Pickpocket has an adorable pet monkey that collects coins and other loot for him. Hector (the monkey) won't alert guards, so you can stay hidden while he does the dirty work for you. The Pickpocket also hides in bushes faster than his compatriots. 
  • The Gentleman can create a disguise while hidden. It doesn't last very long, but can be vital in keeping you from meeting your maker when being tailed by five or six trigger-happy coppers. For some reason, they don't seem to realize that they were shooting at you not seconds before once you don a disguise. He also enters getaway vehicles faster than the other thieves, but I never found that to be an advantage as you were pretty much free-and-clear once you reached the car. 
  • The Mole has the ability to chomp through most walls and obstructions. This was invaluable when you were trying to escape from a bevy of guards. It also made getting around the board more straightforward. One of the problems I had with the game was the inability to tell what was a door and what was a wall. With the mole, you could go through either. 
  • The Redhead has the ability to seduce a single enemy. More than one and she was toast, but she can get one guard to chill out if he's chasing her by himself. She also revived teammates faster than any other character type. 
  • The Locksmith can, fairly obviously, pick locks very quickly. That includes doors, safes, cash registers, and ATMs. 
  • The Lookout has the useful abilty to see every guard on a level while sneaking. She can move faster than any of the other types. She can also open windows, vents, and stairs faster than the rest. 

retro revolution

The music is as retro as the graphics. It brings to mind Scott Joplin and leans heavily on piano music from the first half of the twentieth century. The opening music sounds like it belongs in a saloon in Dodge City with Wyatt Earp dealing Faro. It also plays a part by informing the action. When you are undetected, there is little to no soundtrack. Someone just tickles the ivory. However, when a posse of guards is hot on your trail, the Joplin-esque piano really kicks into high gear. I found it to be a quality addition that really improved the overall experience. 

The game is very challenging, sometimes a bit too much so. It operates under the same gameplay model as those previously mentioned games from the eighties. You aren't supposed to be able to clear a level on your first try. This model varies widely from most modern games. Many of today's titles have levels that are passable on your first try. The focus is more on progressing the story line than mastering each individual level. For example, I knew every level warp, extra life, secret trick, and negative world in Super Mario Brothers. In today's games, an online walkthrough is almost always required to learn every secret that a title has to offer. For completionists, online walkthroughs have become a completely necessary part of the gaming experience. Many people, myself included, purchase 400-page game guides in order to achieve the same level of knowledge about a game that used to be acquired via multiple deaths and playthroughs. 

One reason for this shift in gaming trends is simply the size of games. claims Ms. Pac-Man takes 2-3 hours to beat, but I never came anywhere close to lasting that long. It took 3-4 hours to cover every level of Super Mario Brothers. Some single missions in Skyrim could take that long. To reach the same level of completionist OCD relief in Skyrim as Mario, you would have to spend at least 200 hours playing the game. If Skyrim missions were as difficult as those in Monaco, that number would be closer to 1,000. At first, the requirement that you replay levels over and over was a tad annoying. As the game went on, though, I grew to love the older style of gameplay. Like Mario Brothers and Pac-Man, you are given three lives in Monaco. Once you use them up, it's game over. It's been quite a while since I played a game with a limited number of lives. The retro-style design and gameplay were great fun and a nice change of pace from most of my recent fare. Although it could be a bit disheartening when you failed a level for the tenth time, it made it all the sweeter when you finally cleared it. I did more yelling at this game on my television than I have at anything short of sports for a long time, both out of anger and sheer joy.

the math

Objective Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for making a supremely rewarding game despite the lack of graphics on par with this generation's biggest titles. I'm not a huge "independent" gamer, but Monaco has convinced me to give more Live Arcade indie titles a try. 

Penalties: -1 for being so difficult as to possibly turn off some gamers before they really get into it. If I didn't have to play it for this blog, I might not have made it through.

Nerd Coeffecient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

Scott Snyder may be having one of the best weeks in comics ever.  He debuted the new DC title Superman Unchained, began a new arc in Batman that explores his origin and examines the time he spent away from Gotham City after the death of his parents, and released a one-shot American Vampire story.  I didn't get a chance to read American Vampire, but both Superman Unchained and Batman warrant your attention.  I was especially pleased to enjoy the Superman title as he is one of my least favorite superheros.  In the most shocking news ever to hit this feature, I did not pick a comic from the mind of Joe Hill as pick of the week!

Pick of the Week:
Helheim #4 - This series seems to get stronger with each issue and it was the pacing of this issue that set it apart from the herd.  It begins slow and you get the feeling that it is going to be an issue that develops the story, but doesn't involve much action.  It really felt like the calm before the storm and then the storm hits out of nowhere.  The battle of the two witches is taking a greater toll on all of those involved and so both must be destroyed.  Kirk, Rikard's father, faces quite the emotional decision.  His goals involve killing the monstrosity that his son has become and both witches for the good of his people.  He must swallow his pride and accept the help of the Draugr in the hopes that he survives the war only to kill what was once his son.  The sheer amount of conflict that Cullen Bunn has packed into this series, both internally and externally, really gives this title the depth needed to counter the violence.

The Rest:
Superman Unchained #1 - Minus the $4.99 price point and the gimmicky poster spread, this book was very enjoyable.  To me what made me begin to appreciate Superman, who I find very boring and wholesome, was that you see him heading towards his breaking point and actually showing some emotion.  The reveal at the end was enough to get me on board for the next issue.

Batman #21 -  The Zero Year arc has begun and Scott Snyder plans on providing some insights into some of the holes in Batman's past.  Based on the first issue I am hopeful that this arc will be as enjoyable as the Court of the Owls.  Batman will even be squaring off against a new foe in this run that should be as fun as solving a riddle!

Thumbprint #1 - Based on a novella penned by Joe Hill, Thumbprint tells the story of a woman who has been discharged from the Army after participating in some questionable acts when stationed at Abu Ghraib.  Her life at home is not without complication and her world is truly rocked when she is left a mysterious thumbprint in her mailbox.  Filled with some of the more disturbing and realistic scenes I have seen in a comic, this one is not for the faint of heart.

Killjoys #1 - Gerard Way, author of the fabulous Umbrella Academy, has a new series published by Dark Horse.  A girl who rode with the Killjoys, a group of heros who were killed trying to stand up to the evil empire of Battery City, may be the savior to the rebels who remain underground in their nest.  With her trust cat as the only companion she truly trusts, she relies on the radio waves and a rebel DJ to stay informed.  Way pens an interesting post apocalyptic tale that has the potential to be a great series, but we will have to wait and see.

Walking Dead #111 - Just when you think things are going to move in a straight line to the inevitable showdown between Rick and Negan Robert Kirkman throws in another wrinkle.  Negan somehow becomes more unlikable and things that were looking hopeful for Rick and his crew now seem worse than ever.  It will be a tough wait for issue #112.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

GUEST POST: Stories Outside History by Daniel Abraham

We are proud to present a guest post by fantasy and science fiction author Daniel Abraham! Regular readers of this blog are doubtlessly familiar with our reviews of Daniel's work, most recently the excellent and thought-provoking fantasy novel The Tyrant's Law. A prolific writer, Daniel also writes urban fantasy under the name MLN Hanover and co-writes the Hugo-nominated Expanse space opera series as James S. A. Corey (with Ty Franck). He has also written the graphic adaptation of A Game of Thrones for Dynamite and numerous short stories and novellas, the most recent of which ("The High King Dreaming") was a standout in Jonathan Strahan's top-notch Fearsome Journeys anthology. 

What you may not know is that Daniel is an equally accomplished critic of fantasy and science fiction--his piece on historical accuracy and "realism" in fantasy fiction for A Dribble of Ink is a must-read for any fan with a critical eye. Today Daniel revisits the topic of fantasy's relationship to history...

There's a way in which all stories are fantasies, but there's also a way in which some stories aren't.

I came to the conclusion a few years ago that reading is essentially an act of performance. When we read, we imagine the scenes described before us in a way that's a lot like remembering or dreaming them. When the passage talked about the smell of the sea and the darkness of the sky, we as readers evoke those sensations, putting them together based on whatever experiences we have that apply. We create a drama that each one of us experiences alone. How I imagine Frodo and the Balrog probably isn’t quite the way you do. How I hear Lord Peter Wimsey speak is probably a little different. The finest details and even whether those details are part of the experience will change from reader to reader, and even from reading to reading. Which is to say that the experience of a story – as opposed to the experience of grammar – is an act of imagination, no matter what the content of that story may be.

I live in the early twenty-first century. I have no direct experience of Weimar Germany. Or 1800s England. Or Napoleon's final prison on Elba. Or – more to the point – of Bag End, Winterfell, or Barsoom. Whenever I read a story, I am evoking places, people, actions, and states of mind that are outside my immediate experience. But some stories lay claim to a special status. To one degree or another, they claim to be real. That can range from "Based on a True Story" claims like the Amityville Horror books to any piece of fiction that takes a setting in the present or historical past. By placing characters and events in the world we know – or feel like we know, anyway – the story gains something. I may not have been to ancient Rome, but I've seen it depicted before. I am aware of who Julius Caesar was, who Brutus was, what a toga looks like, just the way I have a sense of Edwardian England or the suburbs of Chicago. A shared cultural background gives information that the writer then doesn't have to put on the page. It gives the since that what we read could have happened (and maybe really did).

The stories we call fantasy give that up. They take place outside of history, outside of the world, outside, that is to say, of plausibility. The deaths of Boromir and Ned Stark have no relationship to the deaths of Constantine and Alexander the Great. It isn't only that the events didn't happen at the same time, they didn't happen at times that could be compared. The yardstick of history becomes meaningless.

The obvious advantage is that it gives writers more freedom. The struggle between York and Lancaster may have a documented outcome, but Stark and Lannister has no other source to take information from. It's tempting to say that this distance is what makes fantasy powerful, but I think that's a mistake. As a reader, my experience of fantasy isn't that, by being outside of my world, it becomes less connected to me. On the contrary, the experience of reading it seems more personal. More my own. That doesn't some from greater distance, but greater intimacy. It's a puzzle I haven't entirely solved, but I have some clues that I've followed, and some guesses that I've made.

The first fantasies I remember engaging with were pretend games I played with my mother. I was young enough at the time that my connection to the real world didn't extend much past my front yard anyway. Any world I spun up was as good as another. It was only when I started school that the question of whether it was real or not – whether it was right or wrong – was an issue. The real world where everyone agrees to common facts was something that school and education constructed for me over the course of years. It's a necessary context, and it allows for civilization to exist. I don't resent it.

But when an author starts a story by saying I can throw all that out, I fall back into that more intimate kind of dream. Yes, maybe it looks a little like something I know – there's a king, maybe, or a free city built on lagoon, or a train station at the edge of a city that's never existed – but for the most part, I've stepped back into a pretend game, and it feels a little disloyal to the world. There's a joy in that. And more than that, there's a power.

The roots of fantasy have often been instructive, and they've often been a little dangerous. Fables, fairy tales, parables and the stories about the gods all functioned to make the world make sense, not by cataloging it but by framing it. And it seems to me modern fantasy still has that in its blood. It is a literature that is equal parts swashbuckling playground adventure and ideas. To the degree that it is escapism, it can tell us what we're escaping from. To the degree it reflects our own world back to us, changed to let us see ideas freed from the particulars of history, and in my lifetime, that is most often concerned with the loss of innocence and the futility of war. 

I don't think it's coincidental that the two great tentpole fantasies of the last century – Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire – are first and foremost meditations on war. Lord of the Rings is an extended argument about the morality of disarmament and the redemptive power of mercy. A Song of Ice and Fire is profoundly sorrowful story about the futility of petty, vicious wars in the shadow of an overwhelming catastrophe. Both speak to the weariness of war and the human cost of violence.

By stepping outside the flow of history, fantasy gives us the toolbox to tell stories that are about deeper concerns, and often ones that we don't have other places to talk about. Because all fantasies, whether they say it or not, begin with "Once upon a time, but not now and not here" and those of us who love them, love that. And we love it because it isn't true.